A Cold War Fought Deep
U.S. and Soviet Submarines in Deadly Contests

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These accounts of submarine incidents during the Cold War are meant to be read as a
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Throughout the Cold War, American and Soviet submarines played dangerous and some- times deadly games with each other.  Details of these conflicts are now surfacing as the U.S. faces decisions on the future role of its submarine fleet.  This is the first in a series reported and written by Christopher Drew and Michael L. Millenson of the Chicago Tribune and Robert Becker of the Newport News Daily Press.
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[Up - .1K] USS TAUTOG [Down - .1K]
There was no sense of foreboding on USS TAUTOG when the then Soviet missile sub suddenly curled around to see if anything was behind it.   TAUTOG had been shadowing its noisy and somewhat lumbering prey for hours as the Soviet vessel traveled several hundred feet below the surface of the Northern Pacific, probably on its way home from a lengthy patrol.

It was June of 1970, Vietnam and the Cold War were still raging, and most of TAUTOG's officers and enlisted men had played this delicate stalking game before.  They knew it was extraordinarily dangerous.  TAUTOG and the Soviet sub derived their remarkable power to glide almost endlessly beneath the sea from nuclear reactors.  Both carried weapons of incredibly destructive nuclear might.  And then there was the unforgiving nature of the sea itself.

The Soviet sub's arcing U-turn, and its pause to listen for any threatening sounds, were common maneuvers.  The "Terrible T," as TAUTOG was known, had parried the moves easily an hour or two before by cutting its own speed and letting the gurgling marine noises cover the faint hum of its propeller.  But this time was different.

Maybe the Soviet sonar operators, straining at their headsets, had picked up a hint of danger.  Or maybe the Soviet captain simply wanted to punctuate his displeasure at the thought that anyone would dare to tail him.  Whatever the reason, the 6000-ton Soviet submarine suddenly roared back toward TAUTOG in an ultimate game of chicken.

"All of a sudden Ivan was coming screaming at us," recalled one of the TAUTOG's crew members. " Sonar reported, 'Contact at 500 yards and closing fast.' " "The next thing we knew we were going backwards and down," he said.

The Soviet sub's belly slammed into the top of TAUTOG's sail, making a horrible screeching sound.  Its propellers then ground through the side of her sail "just like a big old knife going down through it," another crew member said.  The impact flipped the 4800-ton TAUTOG on her side.  Off-duty crew members tumbled from their bunks, tools popped out of wall lockers and maraschino cherries and pickle relish spattered over the mess decks.  Miraculously, none of TAUTOG's 115 crew members was injured.

The 100 sailors on the Soviet sub were not so lucky.  After the crash TAUTOG's sonar operators first heard nothing but silence.  Then, TAUTOG's sonar team picked up a series of ghastly sounds -- "like popping of popcorn."

TAUTOG's sonar operators and senior officers interpreted the sound as the noise of the Soviet submarine cracking into pieces as it and its crew plunged into the devastating pressures thousands of feet below the ocean's surface.  Audio tapes made in TAUTOG's sonar room captured the sound of "the crackup, then everything stopping," one crew member said.  "Then no more crackup, no more nothing."

Sonar readings taken before the accident had indicated that the Soviet sub was one of the "Echo II" class, armed with nuclear and conventional missiles designed to destroy air- craft carriers.  Former TAUTOG crew members said Navy investigators concluded that the impact of the collision shattered one or both of the Soviet sub's propellers or the intricate seals around them, allowing sea water to pour into its engine room.

TAUTOG searched for half a day for its former adversary.   "We turned completely around and just listened -- nothing.  Then we came up slowly.  We listened and listened again, nothing.  We came up to periscope depth and looked and waited, and looked, and looked and nothing."

(Later discoveries revealed that the collision caused no personnel casualties aboard either submarine.  The reference cited in the update to the following section identifies the name and actual status of the Soviet submarine involved in this incident.)
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The sinking of the Soviet missile submarine, described in the preceding section, has long been one of both countries' most tightly guarded secrets.  But this incident, never reported publicly, illustrates how the United States and the Soviet Union fought a vast, undeclared and sometimes chillingly violent Cold War under the sea, a war that supposedly doesn't continue today.

A key instrument of this war has been the submarine, first the damp, smelly diesel boats left over from World War II, then the revolutionary nuclear machines, perhaps the stealthiest and most lethal weapon ever known to man.  The battle has been fought on an exotic terrain that covers two-thirds of the globe and is in many ways as challenging and dangerous as outer space.  As the Cold Was unfolded, these giant undersea fleets arguably became more powerful than any weapons on land or in the air, able to destroy whole nations while escaping retaliations.

If the airplane was the new dominant weapon of WWII, the submarine was the weapon of the Cold War.  Before space satellite pictures put even cars on Moscow streets in relief, the submarine was vital because it could get closer to the Soviet land mass to take photo- graphs and intercept communications that other intelligence-gathering devices.  Unlike aircraft -- such as Francis Gary Powers' U-2, which the Soviets shot down in 1960 -- a submarine was hard to find and difficult to destroy.  Unlike land-based electronic listening posts, the submarine needed no delicate treaty with host nations.  And though both sides in the Cold War violated each other's water frontiers, the submarine came and left with no trace.  It was no USS Pueblo, an unarmed Navy ship vulnerable to gunboats whose crew was captured when it was spotted off the North Korean coast in 1968.  U.S. and Soviet submarines could move without warning, stalk each other's naval vessels and monitor each other's military communications.  They secretly entered each other's harbors to take photographs through periscopes, observe weapons tests and put agents ashore.

Many believe the turning point of the Cold War was the deployment in the early 1960s of the nuclear-powered missile submarine, so powerful that the one to two dozen warheads on a single vessel held a far greater destructive might than all the bombs dropped in WWII.  The missile submarine could hide in the oceans' vast expanses, becoming an intercontinental missile force that could not be destroyed, ready to fire a second strike if the nation were attacked and land missiles destroyed.  This second strike guaranteed that no aggressor could survive even if he launched the first nuclear attack.  In effect, nuclear war became impossible to win.

Much less known is the world of attack submarines like TAUTOG, vessels designed to stalk and sink enemy submarines and ships.  Former submariners say they often took such huge risks in seeking intelligence -- and engaged in such fierce encounters with Soviet naval forces -- that they could have triggered the very nuclear holocaust they were trying to help the world avoid.

This series of articles is the story of the submarine war.  It is drawn from Navy documents never made public and interviews with some 500 current and former U.S. submariners who agreed to talk about their experiences, many on the ground that their names not be divulged.  In the history of these thousands of patrols are never-told stories of depth- chargings, rammings, missing submarines and narrow escapes from the dangers of the Soviets and the sea.

"Let's put it this way.  It was World War II extended," said one veteran of numerous submarine patrols.  "There was a kind of tacit understanding on both sides," another former sailor said."  They knew we were out there trying to learn what we could about them, and we knew they were doing the same thing.  And if you got in somewhere they didn't want you to be, you got your nose bloodied."  "We did it to them, and they did it to us," he said.

TAUTOG's encounter with the Soviet submarine came at a ticklish moment for the Nixon administration.  It was just opening contacts with the Kremlin in hopes of starting a diplomatic dialogue that later became detente.  The sinking of a submarine and the death of a hundred Soviet sailors would have been a poor background for talks.

In the end, the submarine accident did not provoke any reaction from the Soviet government.  Some speculate it is possible that Soviet leaders never knew what happened to their submarine.  Like the final scenes from the movie, "The Hunt for Red October," the Soviets may have only suspected the fate of the Echo II.

UPDATE:  Subsequent information made public after the collapse of the Soviet Union revealed that the submarine which collided with the TAUTOG was K-108, a Soviet Navy Echo II-class guided missile submarine nicknamed "Black Lila".  K-108 in reality had limped back to its base in Russia.  The collision caused no personnel casualties aboard either submarine.  Refer to the Wikipedia article about the USS Tautog for sources.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Tautog_%28SSN-639%29#Collision_with_K-108.2C_1970)
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[Up - .1K] USS BALTIMORE [Down - .1K]
There were other such moments.  In the late summer of 1985, for example, U.S. intelligence officials sent the attack submarine USS BALTIMORE to find out why a Soviet Zulu-4 submarine was loitering on the surface of the North Atlantic, a little more than 300 feet above the ocean floor.  After locating the Soviet sub, BALTIMORE veered off and waited.  Then it made another pass, coming within 100 feet of the Soviet sub. What its crew discovered, through the ship's periscope and its passive listening gear, was an open underwater sled.  It was equipped with one or more hoses to the submarine and gear for digging on the ocean floor.  One sailor described the sled as resembling a catamaran with ballast tanks on each side.

The murky water prevented BALTIMORE's crew from seeing precisely how many men were on the sled, but they could tell the Soviets did not realize they had been discovered."
They had no idea we were there," said one sailor.  "They were making a lot of noise that was repetitive.  It sounded like digging and drilling."

For the next two or three days, BALTIMORE hovered near the Zulu, "just hanging out, just keeping a safe distance away," listening to the Soviets communicate over their boat's intercom with the sled below, one U.S. sailor said.  The men on BALTIMORE concluded that the divers were trying to locate U.S. communication cables.  

BALTIMORE maintained a silent vigil.  "We were pretty tense," one sailor remem- bered.  "Everyone told us to be quiet, wear your rubber shoes, don't slam doors.  They turned off the ice machine -- it grinds ice and makes noise.  The engineering room hatch, the big one going from engineering to operations was dogged open.  They turned off the 'bug juice' machine." The tension was so great one American remembered this was when he started smoking.  As time went on, surface swells reached 30 feet.

On the third day, with BALTIMORE hovering within listening distance, the noise from the sled suddenly stopped.  This time there was no sound of the cable reeling it back to the Zulu.  "We were quite a ways away so we couldn't be seen," said one crew member."
And then we heard the boat [Zulu] start up again," he said.  "We came up closer for a better look and there was no more sled." All they saw was the little cable dangling free.

Reaction in the Control Room was stunned silence.  "Whoa.  We were stunned because we knew this guy was gone, or however many guys they had in there," a sailor said.  "I remember that everyone in the Conn turned around and looked at each other," another U.S. sailor said.  No one spoke, he remembered.  "It was more like we realized a sub- mariner was dead."

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The U.S. has lost two nuclear submarines in tragedies that captured worldwide attention.

USS THRESHER went down in 1963 with 129 aboard when its nuclear reactor shut down and a pipe burst, preventing the crew from using compressed air to surface.

USS SCORPION sank in 1968 after what experts believe was an accidental detonation of a torpedo.  Ninety-nine sailors died on SCORPION.

The U.S. submarine force has lost another 16 men over the years in accidents during operations.

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[Up - .1K] USS BARBEL [Down - .1K]
The submarine could thrust the U.S. into a dangerous diplomatic thicket as well.

USS BARBEL, for instance, accidentally rammed and sank North Vietnam's largest freighter in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1966 while trying to determine what type of war-related cargo it was carrying.  The incident, long held secret by the the U.S. government, occurred after then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had instructed Navy leaders to keep U.S. submarines out of that Gulf to avoid opening direct war with North Vietnam.

Although damaged itself, BARBEL, a diesel-powered submarine, remained submerged, backed away from the freighter and left the scene without waiting to see what happened to the sailors or the ship.

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[Up - .1K] USS COCHINO & USS TUSK [Down - .1K]
The submarine that came out of WWII was a crude and imperfect instrument for the Cold War.  World War II submarines were in effect surface ships that submerged to attack.
They had insufficient air to remain below more than a day without virtually shutting down all operations.  It wasn't long after the surrender of Japan in 1945 that the Navy began experimenting with a "snorkel," a device to allow subs to "breathe" while submerged.  It was adapted from German submarines on long, dangerous patrols.

In fact, one of the first of those subs, USS COCHINO, suffered a battery explosion and sank as it headed toward Norway after testing the snorkel and new sonar equipment not far from the Soviet naval base of Murmansk in August, 1949.  One man from COCHINO and six from a companion sub, USS TUSK, were washed overboard when TUSK braved gales and cascading waves to rescue the rest of COCHINO's crew.

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COCHINO's mission came three months after one of the first major confrontations of the Cold War, the Soviet blockade of Berlin.  The U.S. won that encounter by airlifting more than 7000 tons of food and fuel a day into the city.  But the standoff convinced U.S. policy makers that the Soviets were bent on expanding across the globe.  When the Soviets detonated their first atomic device in 1949, U.S. officials began scrambling to broaden U.S. capability to deliver nuclear payloads and to find ways to monitor Soviet military developments.

There was greater urgency throughout the 1950s, as the Korean War and the formation
of Warsaw Pact convinced U.S. policy makers that even after Soviet leader Josef Stalin's death, the Soviet Union was seeking world domination.  In the midst of this scare, Congress eagerly approved the plans to build the first nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS NAUTILUS, commissioned in 1954.  When the Soviets in 1957 launched Sputnik, the first spacecraft, American leaders became fearful the Soviets might technologically surpass the U.S.

Among the responses to this perception of a growing threat was President Dwight Eisenhower's accelerating a program to develop and build nuclear subs that could fire long-range missiles and provide a more invulnerable weapon than long-range Air Force bombers and land-based missiles.

In the meantime, the U.S. hurriedly converted several diesel subs to carry primitive missiles that had a range of only 400 to 500 miles.  Their crews in the late 1950s had to deal with such unremitting bad weather and Soviet harassment when they came close to the surface to snorkel that they jokingly referred to themselves as the "Northern Pacific Yacht Club."

During that period, U.S. leaders also increasingly sent swift, high-altitude planes and diesel subs equipped with still cameras and radio intercept antennas to keep track of developments in the Soviet nuclear-missile program and in the buildup of its naval forces.

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[Up - .1K] USS GUDGEON [Down - .1K]
Just as the Soviets attacked spy planes, they reacted angrily whenever they detected U.S. spy subs on intelligence missions near their coasts.

In August 1957, USS GUDGEON, a diesel submarine, was poking around the entrance to the Soviets' largest naval base on the Pacific, Vladivostok.  Its goal was typical for a U.S. spy sub of that era: to monitor Soviet ship movements through its periscope and intercept their radio communications.

Several crew members recall that GUDGEON had staked out a position in relatively shallow  water.  It may have been just outside the 3-mile territorial limit recognized by the United States, they said, but it clearly was well inside the 12-mile limit that the Soviets claimed.  Suddenly, an alert rang out on Soviet radio channels, and as many as eight destroyers began steaming toward the area where GUDGEON was hiding.  GUDGEON turned, its 90 officers and enlisted men rushing to take battle stations and load torpedoes into its eight tubes, and sprinted for the open sea, with the bigger, faster Soviet surface vessels in avid pursuit.

As the sub approached, or just after it sped past the imaginary 12-mile line, its skipper, Norman B. "Buzz" Bessac, a 34-year-old Lieutenant Commander, ordered the boat brought to a full stop, hoping it could "go quiet and lose" its pursuers, crew members said.
But the ploy failed.  As GUDGEON tried to hide below perhaps 200 feet of water, Bessac instructed his men to get ready for what seemed likely to be a long, frightening and lonely siege, the crew members said.

When a diesel submarine is forced to stay underwater, it depends entirely on power from its electric battery previously charged by the diesel to circulate air, operate interior lights, heat food and provide bursts of speed for a possible getaway, and life aboard becomes much more precarious.   The snorkel sucks in air needed to operate the boat's diesel engines and to refresh the air that its crew breathers.  Diesel subs normally snorkel every night.

In GUDGEON's case, the menacing presence of the Soviet destroyers meant that the sub would be unable to go up to periscope depth, about 60 feet below the surface, and snorkel that night.  The boat also could not send any kind of plea for help without rising enough to pierce the surface with its radio antenna.  So Bessac ordered that every precaution be taken to preserve electricity and air, the crew members said.  Fans and blowers that pushed air around the submarine were turned off.  Lights were trimmed to a dim, candle- like glow.  Crystals of lithium hydroxide, a chemical that absorbs the carbon dioxide exhaled by the crew, were sprinkled on cloth mattress covers laid out in various compartments.

Bessac instructed all non-essential crew members to stay in their bunks.  Despite the rising tension, GUDGEON's officers forbade cigarette smoking, which give off carbon monoxide.  As the hold down stretched through that night, the whole next day and well into a second night, the sub's air got so thick and foul that many of the men developed severe headaches.

Every hour or two, one of the destroyers would bounce active sonar off GUDGEON's 290-foot-long hull, creating chilling metallic "pings" that resounded inside the sub and in the minds of its crew members.  The destroyer then would steam over the top of the sub- marine and drop a wave of depth charges that detonated above or around it.  "They would circle, and one of them would make a run and drop" its depth charges, one GUDGEON crew member said.  "Then they'd go back out and pick up again (on sonar), and somebody else would come in and make a run.

One crew member said GUDGEON's officers decided after the first wave of explosions failed to cause serious damage that the destroyers probably had dropped small, practice- sized depth charges similar to hand grenades instead of full-power charges like those that sank scores of submarines in WWII.  The grenade-like charges make a terrifying noise that splinters the water like a jackhammer ripping through concrete, but they are unlikely to cause much damage to the thick steel hull of a submarine.  Still, he said, "The thing you worry about when they drop the damn things is that the next one's going to be a real one."

Several times, GUDGEON started to creep ahead deep under the water in an attempt to wriggle free.  But each time, the crew members said, the destroyers peppered its hull with sonar pings and laid another string of the grenade-like charges in its path.  At one point, GUDGEON tried to elude the gauntlet of destroyers by shooting a noise-making decoy out of its garbage ejection tube in one direction while it moved in another, one crew member said.  Another time, he said, the sub went below its "test depth" of 700 feet or
so in a vain attempt to escape the reach of the Soviet's sonar.

Finally, after more than 30 hours under Soviet control, the sub's battery had gotten so weak, and its air so horrid, a new fear took hold among its crew: If GUDGEON had to surface in the midst of the destroyers, would the Soviets try to board it and capture the crew?  With this possibility in mind, some of the officers and intelligence operatives on board hastily destroyed a number of classified documents, one crew member recalled.

But there was a hopeful sign: During the hold down, a few of the Soviet destroyers had broken off from the pack and sailed back toward the port.  So Bessac, who had decided he would fight rather than allow the sub to be boarded, tried one last stratagem, crew members said.  He ordered the crew in the Control Room to bring the sub to periscope depth, where it quickly raised its radio antenna and shot off a message to U.S. 7th Fleet headquarters in Japan asking for assistance.

The sub also stuck up its snorkel mast to try to gulp some fresh air, but a Soviet vessel raced straight toward the pipe, as if to ram it, and "drove us back under," one of GUDGEON's crew members said.  At this point, Bessac had no choice but to risk bringing GUDGEON fully to the surface.  As the sub rose slowly through the water, Bessac made sure that the doors to its torpedo tubes were open, the last action needed to ensure that the torpedoes could be fired at the push of a button, crew members said.

After the sub broke the surface, Bessac clambered up the ladder inside the sub's sail and onto the bridge, where he instructed a signalman to point the light at one of the Soviet ships out in the night and blink a message in Morse code.  The staccato light beams identified GUDGEON as a U.S. Navy warship and asserted its right to be in what its crew believed were international waters.  A few minutes later, the Soviets flashed back a message that was comforting, though somewhat gloating, in its simple statement of the obvious.  These blinking lights identified the GUDGEON's adversary as "CCCP," and suggested the sub head for home without delay.

The Soviet ships then parted their ring around GUDGEON and allowed it to set sail.  A few hours later, U.S. warplanes passed overhead and could see that GUDGEON had survived the ordeal.

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[Up - .1K] USS GRENADIER [Down - .1K]
It wasn't long after GUDGEON hold down, however, that the newly energized Soviet navy began roughing up other U.S. spy subs.  Another U.S. diesel sub was held down for more than 35 hours on a patrol in which it tested new sonar gear so close to the East Coast of the Soviet Union that "the rocks looked awfully big," a crew member said.

At one point before the Soviets broke off the encounter, he said, the boat's commanding officer, handed each of his fellow officers a .45-caliber pistol.  "This junior officer asked the CO, 'What are we supposed to do with this?' The CO said, 'I don't know what you're going to do with that.  But the first one who steps on my ship is dead.' "

Instead of protesting through diplomatic channels, the U.S. decided to play along in this strange and sometimes vicious game of machismo.  In 1958, Admiral Jerauld Wright, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, posted a proclamation, scrolled and framed, outside his office offering a reward to the first U.S. sub or anti-submarine plane or ship that inflicted "appropriate embarrassment" on any unindentified sub in what he called "the approaches" to the United States.  The prize? "One case of Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Brand of Quality Tennessee Sour Mash Corn Whiskey," according to the proclamation.

The payoff came in late May 1959, when USS GRENADIER detected a submerged Soviet sub off Iceland, tracked it until its air got foul and forced it to surface.

GRENADIER's captain, Theodore "Ted" Davis, saved a bottle of the whiskey as a souvenir and divided the rest among the crew.  Davis said he kept the sealed bottle on a shelf in his study until a housekeeper helped herself to a taste one day in the late 1970s.

Not long after that, the man who had been his engineer on GRENADIER came to visit, Davis added, "and I said, 'Well now that it's open, we may as well drink the whole damn thing.' So we sat down and drank it all."

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